In this four-part series, award-winning reporter Peg Tyre examines how the controversial Common Core Standards will impact American education. We’ll explore the sweeping new goals of the initiative, how teachers are preparing for the changeover—and what's causing critics to sound the alarm.
The introduction of the Common Core has a lot of people really excited—and not all of them in a good way. Common Core haters say the goal of the standards—to promote college and career readiness in all students—is unrealistic for a lot of students who would be better served by a technical or vocational education.
Yes, school might become more rigorous, and as a consequence, be more alienating for kids who aren’t geared toward scholastic achievement. And yes, we’re going to have to come up with school-to-career tracks for kids who can’t/won’t/decide not to/ beaver their way through the Common Core. But variable talent and interests doesn’t seem, at least to me, like a good reason for our schools not to aspire to great things.
More incisive critics say the whole effort is a backdoor way of establishing a national curriculum—which is pretty much true. But on the face of it, a national curriculum doesn’t seem like a terrible thing.
What we have now is a dizzying patchwork of standards and curriculums across the states. And some of the countries that turn out top-performing kids, like Finland and city-state Singapore (and, in fairness, some that turn out so-so students like Denmark and France), have a national curriculum that, at the very least, allows them to streamline textbooks and teacher training, avoiding the kind of costly and inefficient hodgepodge we have in the States.
Some of the Core’s critics are also raising the alarm that the Common Core is an intrusion of the federal government into affairs that are supposed to be handled by the state. And I find this criticism valid and worth worrying about.
As citizens, we’re supposed to be vigilant about the balance between state and federal powers in our democracy. And according to the Constitution that governs that balance, there is supposed to be state and local control of school matters. Critics see the CCSS as the first step down a fast slide toward the federal government telling teachers what should go on in their classrooms. I’m not sure we’re on some kind of road to no return, but I note this expansion of federal influence with concern.
Unsettling, too, is the criticism of the way the standards were adopted. For the most part, the standards seemed based on Blue Chip-type research that has been replicated for decades and put together under the guidance of mainstream academics using the best thinking available to us at this time (as opposed to say, hot-blooded fanatics on the left or right who sometimes get their teeth into education matters).
And, in fact, early versions of the CCSS were the subject of endless debate and discussion among blue ribbon panels of experts, other researchers, and public-comment periods. But critics justifiably point out that for something this important, we should have had some massive, rigorous, federally funded studies—or at least tested the standards in actual classrooms—in order to settle questions on exactly what works best.
That would definitely have been a more sensible, orderly, transparent way of approaching this whole effort. But remember, because we are not supposed to have a federally controlled curriculum, and the mere mention of a nationwide set of standards makes the fanatics as well as respectful admirers of our Constitutional system of checks and balances start to twitch, no one could just come out and say, “Hey, we need a nationwide curriculum, so let’s spend some federal dollars and figure out empirically what works best.”
Political realities being what they are, it seems like the choice was between nationwide standards that haven't yet been classroom-tested, or no nationwide standards at all.
The unveiling of national standards is going to be subject to ideologically based criticisms every step of the way.
We saw this when the standards for science were unveiled. Man-made global warming, which for some is fiction, was included in the curriculum. So was evolution. As of this writing, it is unclear how that gulf will be breached. And wait until we get to history! There are bound to be brawls about that!
More locally, in schools, teachers are divided. Some of them are simply rolling their eyes at yet another effort to affect what happens in their classrooms. Other are complaining they feel woefully underprepared to teach to the new standards.
Remember, the standards say what goals the kids need to reach, but not exactly how to reach them. So by design, there will be a learn-as-you-go period. Creating more uncertainty is that tests evaluating how well kids do on these new standards have not yet been rolled out. So not only have teachers been given a goal with little instruction on how to reach it, but they have also not been told what reaching it needs to look like.
It’s no wonder that in a survey conducted by Education Week in February, nearly half of the 600 teachers questioned said they felt unprepared to teach the standards, especially to disadvantaged kids and English language learners. Perhaps even more concerning: About 30 percent of respondents had not had any training for the Common Core at all.
And since tests will be based on new standards teachers aren’t even teaching yet, scores are bound to drop.
Taypayers are also mixed. Asking the school districts in 46 states to walk in lockstep is a logistical nightmare, and it also costs lots of money. As schools prepare for the Common Core, money is being spent on textbooks and Common Core aligned materials. New York City, for instance, is spending $56 million this year alone. Fiscal watchdogs point out that rather than being used to hire more teachers, rebuild crumbling schools, or to add music programs, much-needed educational dollars are heading straight into the pockets of big textbook publishers.
Most parents are taking a wait-and-see attitude. School might be different next year, they’re being told. And since tests will be based on new standards teachers aren’t even teaching yet, scores are bound to drop.
In the next installment of this series, I take a closer look at how the Common Core will affect reading and writing. After that, I will look at the tail that wags the dog: testing under the Common Core.